Archive for the ‘Science and Edumacation’ Category
CNN has an article up that is … kinda dumb:
While the campaigns eagerly pursue female voters, there’s something that may raise the chances for both presidential candidates that’s totally out of their control: women’s ovulation cycles.
You read that right. New research suggests that hormones may influence female voting choices differently, depending on whether a woman is single or in a committed relationship.
Please continue reading with caution. Although the study will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, several political scientists who read the study have expressed skepticism about its conclusions.
Basically, this new study claims — actually, rediscovers — that women in relationships favor Romney by 19 points and single women favor Obama by 33. Their new claim is that when those women are ovulating, those percentages jump by as many as 20 points.
This has, for obvious reasons, caused quite a stir in the blogosphere and Twitter. Unfortunately, the primary reaction is for people to clutch their copies of McKinnon and scream at some Texas professor for daring to suggest that women are nothing but hormone-addled idiots, even though the professor in question says nothing of the kind. And that reaction is kind of unfortunate. Because in their zeal to proclaim that women are completely unaffected by their hormones, people are missing the real reason why the article is dumb and should just be snickered at and then ignored.
First, the number of women we are dealing with is small. I don’t have access to the study and their exact numbers but they studied 502 women total. If by “change of 20 points*” they mean that women in relationships went from 59-41 Romney to 69-31 Romney, that’s a total of about 25 women changing their minds. And a similar number among single women. That … really doesn’t strike me as a statistically significant sample, especially given how volatile polls are known to be anyway and how uncertain the date of ovulation can be.
(*A critical point that is missing from the article is whether that jump is 20 points in differential or absolute (i.e, from 59-41 to 69-31 or 79-21). It’s the difference between 25 women changing their minds — a small number — and 50, a more interesting number. I also note the phrase “as much as 20 points”, which suggests that 20 points is at the outer edge of a very large statistical uncertainty and the actual difference is much smaller. This is why I would like to see the actual study.)
Second, it’s difficult to pin down an a priori reason why a woman’s menstrual cycle might affect her voting. In the absence of clear information, we can only speculate. And this is where CNN and the researchers really flounder badly:
Here’s how Durante explains this: When women are ovulating, they “feel sexier,” and therefore lean more toward liberal attitudes on abortion and marriage equality. Married women have the same hormones firing, but tend to take the opposite viewpoint on these issues, she says.
“I think they’re overcompensating for the increase of the hormones motivating them to have sex with other men,” she said. It’s a way of convincing themselves that they’re not the type to give in to such sexual urges, she said.
It’s true enough that women feel “sexier” when ovulating and are known to change their behavior (more likely to have sex, more likely to wear skimpy clothing, etc.). That’s all well-established biology. How this translates into political behavior isn’t clear at all. It seems that the researchers came up with one half of a dubious idea (“women feel sexier so they want abortion to be legal”) and then had to scramble to find the other half (“um, so married women are … repressing?”). That’s nice spit-balling but it’s no more valid than saying that when women are menstruating, they get mad and say, “Screw that guy, I ain’t voting for him any more!” You can basically shove anything you want into that information vacuum and call it “science”.
Something important jumped out at me on a second reading: no one quoted in the article is a biologist or any other kind of scientist. The study author is a Professor of Marketing. They also quote Professors of Political “Science” and Women’s and Gender Studies. I would hazard that maybe the Professor of Marketing knows something about statistics. But this whole things reeks of the Scientific Peter Principle: poorly done studies are the ones most likely to get attention because their flaws produced amazing results.
Here’s $0.02 from someone as equally unqualified to look into this as anyone quoted in the article. I suspect this effect, such as it is, is small, even smaller than the 10% they are claiming. I also suspect that this study was conducted some time ago when a lot of the voters were undecided and might have been a little torn between the two candidates. Undecided voters have a tendency to sway with every breeze that blows. Under those circumstances, it’s possible that the hormone kick at ovulation and the resulting surge in self-confidence might make women a little firmer in their political convictions one way or the other. Or, conversely, that the effects of PMS and/or menstruation make women a little less confident in their choices. One test you could do? See if “ovulation effect” diminishes as we get closer to the election and more people learn about the candidates and make up their minds.
The gripping hand here is that this entire thing is pointless trivia as far as elections go. You see, women’s menstrual cycles tend to be random. So the percentage of women who are ovulating at any one moment is a constant. So the net effect of this on the vote?
Update: I just slapped myself in the head for not saying this in the main text: where the hell was the group of menopausal women used as a control?
I love this:
The coolness and wow factors are there, yes. So is the idea that this sort of thing can be done so cheaply and easily. But the real gem is the look on that kid’s face. This is something he will never forget. I have to steal this idea for my kid one day.
While I find this study, in which people are fooled into arguing against previously-held opinions, interesting, I think many bloggers/tweeters are missing the critical point. On almost all issues, people are of two minds. It is rare that someone encounters an issue where they can not see the other side at all (we call those people “fanatics”). Even people who have a very strong opinion can usually see where the other side is coming from. And, on many issues, we’re kind of on the fence.
The gripping hand is that, unless someone is really passionate about an issue, they haven’t really thought through their arguments very well. They’ve mostly reacted, usually by agreeing with whomever they perceive to be their “side”. And when they do think about the issue, they tend to argue toward whatever side they have already picked.
As I say so often: human being are OK at thinking; but we’re dead awesome at rationalizing.
What the exercise does is not shift their moral compass. What it forces them to do is what we used to do in debate club and what I still try to do while writing blog posts: try to argue the other side. By trying to think of the arguments the opposition might raise, you strengthen your own arguments. And sometimes, you realize that the other side was right to begin with.
So, no, the results are not terribly surprising. But they are interesting.
As an astronomer, I’m always hit with the “what’s the practical use of this” question. My general response is, “Well, what’s the practical use of the Sistine Chapel?” Life can’t all be about practical down to earth things. There has to be beauty and art and discovery and awe. All our practicality has to be oriented toward something beyond ourselves.
But there’s also this. Sometimes just monkeying around with science produces unexpected insight. So research into jellyfish produces an AIDS treatment; screwing around with microwaves produces lasers and going to the moon produces remote sensors to monitor patients.
It’s a big universe out there and we’ve uncovered only a tiny fraction of its secrets. We should keep digging because we never know what’s going to turn up.
I’ll pop up from vacation just to headdesk over people’s discomfort over the recent revelation that cats kill a lot of little creatures.
Um, they’re cats. Cats are predators. They have an instinct to kill. That instinct is impossible to surpress and shouldn’t be suppressed. Even the most domesticated cat can never be sure that their next meal is going to show up. Killing prey, even if they abandon it, keeps their skills sharp in case they ever need them. If they didn’t have this instinct, they would have gone extinct millions of years ago.
As I said on Twitter, if you want a small furry critter without a killer instinct, get a hamster.
I have to agree with this article on how people are using their televisions wrong. It’s distressing to think that a generation of Americans may grow up not knowing how movies are supposed to look. Oh, well, I guess they’re already growing up not knowing how an action scene is supposed to be filmed.
I’m doing more long-form posting of links I care to comment on. But here’s a few I don’t have time for.
I’ve actually thought for some time that the only way to colonize Mars would be to send people there on a one-way trip. Of course, you have to face the brutal reality that those who go are very likely to die in the attempt. Mars is not where we evolved and its environment is almost certain to have unknown hazards. But the back-and-forth business is simply not going to work.
In the end, I think Heinlein was right: space will be colonized by people we decide we’d rather dump off on another planet and let survive on their own. That’s how the Western World colonized the Americas and Australia. You combine some eccentric billionaires and an opportunity to get rid of political/racial/religious undesirables and we’ll spread through the Solar System in no time.